The Islander was my first attempt at building a sailboat, but I don’t suppose there ever was an amateur built craft that so nearly fulfilled the dream of her owner, or that a landman ever came so near to weaving a magic carpet of the sea.
As a youth I was not favorably situated for taking up a seafaring career, but I had many qualifications for the job. My love of the sea did not come from early association, for I was born on a farm in Iowa and did not see salt water until I went to California, when I was eighteen years of age. So far as I know, none of my ancestors ever followed the sea….
This is an excerpt from chapter 1 of Around the World Single-Handed: The Cruise of the Islander by Harry Pidgeon. The first eBook edition launches on Amazon on April 23, 2018. You can download this and two other sailing audiobooks for as little as $5 here.
…When I quit the little flatboat at Port Eads, I had resolved to see more distant lands in a vessel of my own. From that time, I began to take an interest in sailing craft and to contemplate voyages.
But it takes more than wishes to acquire a suitable craft and go on long voyages, so eventually I returned to California and became a photographer among the great trees of the Sierras. After a few years of this work, pleasant through it was, I longed for new scenes.
About this time, I came across the plan of a boat that seemed to be very seaworthy and, in addition, was not too large for one man to handle. Moreover, the construction of it did not seem too difficult for my limited knowledge of shipbuilding. Business with lumberman and tourists in the big woods, and the proceeds from the sale of a small farm, put me in the possession of the necessary funds, so I decided to build my long-dreamed-of ship and go on a voyage to the isles of the sea. From the mountains I went down to the shore of Los Angeles Harbor, located on a vacant lot and began actual work of construction. The plan from which I was to model my ship was one that had been drawn for Captain Thomas Fleming Day, who had wide experience in sailing small boats, and it was Captain Day’s idea of what a small seagoing craft should be. It was a V-bottom or Sea Bird boat, a type developed by Captain Day and yacht designers on the staff of Rudder Magazine. The reason for using the V-bottom type was that it is easier for the amateur builder to lay down and construct. Three safe and handy cruising boats were brought out and the plans published in the Rudder. They were Sea Bird, Naiad, and Seagoer. The Islander was built after the lines of Seagoer and the general construction plan is the same, but I used ideas from each of these boats and added some ideas of my own as suggested by the material at hand and my limited resources. All the information I had when building the Islander is contained in a booklet published by the Rudder Publishing Company of New York (How to Build A Cruising Yawl), containing instructions for building Sea Bird, Naiad, and Seagoer.
With the coming in of the year 1917, the actual work of construction was commenced with the laying down of the keel. The timbers for the keel were eight by twelve inches of thickness and the largest piece twenty-eight feet long. When I hear any one talking about my frail craft, I always think of those keel timbers. They were cut to shape with saw and adz, and a piece of iron weighing twelve hundred and fifty pounds was cast in a near-by foundry for the bottom piece of the keel, and to act as ballast. When the timbers and iron ballast piece were bolted together with large iron bolts, they formed an exceedingly strong backbone for the frame of the vessel.
Except for the stem and a few pieces about the cabin, which were of oak, the wood used in the construction was of Douglas fir or Oregon pine. The timbers for the frame were all very heavy and re-enforced at the bilge with steel plates that I cut from tank plate. After the frame was bolted together as strongly as possible, the planks were put on. The bilge strake and all above were full length in one piece. Working alone as I did, the planking was a long, hard job, and the thick, heavy boards were bent into place without the aid of a steam box. The bilge strakes were two and a half inches thick and seven and a half inches wide amidships, tapering to six inches at the ends. These pieces were bent over twenty inches edgewise as well as being brought round the curve of the sides.
After they were in place, a carpenter from a boat works looked at them and said, “I know how we would put those planks on at the shop, where we have a steam box and plenty of help, but how you got them on I can’t see.” It was the most difficult piece of work about the construction, but when it comes to blocking up and driving wedges they could not have beaten me in the boat shop. Those planks had to come to place or break. That they would break was what I feared, but they did not break. Gradually something like a boat began to appear, and spectators began to arrive, ask questions and give advice.
There was a beachcomber living in a shack nearby, who used to come and tell me that the keel of my boat was cut away too much forward. “She won’t come up into the wind. She’ll fall away to loo’ard.” He informed me he was going to build a boat fifty-feet long and ten-feet beam, in which he was going to Africa to hunt lions. He had invented a reefing gear with which he could reef sails without leaving the wheel. Was going to have an electric motor for an auxiliary and generate electricity with a windmill on deck. Nor was I the only builder on the shore. In sight of my works but across the channel on the Terminal side, a colored Moses was erecting an ark with which to transport a colony of his followers to Liberia. As he was laying down the keel, a question in regard to the size of his projected ship brought the answer that all depended on the donations he got. The donations seemed to keep coming in, for as my boat took shape, his grew into a structure two stories high, with windows alow and aloft, and a stove pipe appeared through a broken pane.
No doubt as my boat was rising from the heap of timbers on the sand it was often taken for another one of those freaks, but a yacht builder, who became interested in what I was doing, told a friend of mine that he could not do the work better himself.
When the planking was on, the deck was laid and covered with canvas, and, then, the house was added. The sides of the house were one solid piece each and carried aft to form the cockpit coamings. The cabin was twelve feet long, arranged with a berth on either side and spaces for drawers and a wood-burning stove. Under the deck between the house and the cockpit was a good space where supplies for a long voyage could be stored. The cockpit was built water-tight, and self-bailing through lead scuppers carried straight down through the hull.
When it came to the caulking, I was advised to get a professional to do it. However, remembering the success I had had in making small boats water-tight, I approached this job with more confidence than almost any other about my new vessel, and few boats are so dry as mine.
The masts were made and fitted, and the name “Islander,” which I had given the new ship, I painted on the stern board. I dug the ground away underneath and laid down ways on which the vessel might slide into the water. Some friends, who were intending to be at the launching, thought they would have time to see a ship launched from a near-by yard and then see the Islander go in, but my boat went in first. From the laying down of the keel to the launching, the Islander came near to being entirely the work of my own hands.
The Islander was rigged as a yawl and was thirty-four-feet long over all, ten feet nine inches beam, and drew five feet of water with no load in her. She carried about six hundred and thirty square feet of sail in her three sails. She was adapted to the use of auxiliary power, but for many reasons, mostly financial, I did not install a motor. However, the real sport is to make the elements take one where he wants to go; and then a motor never functions properly when left alone with me. For a tender I built a little skiff nine-feet long, and when at sea this was hauled on board, turned over against the house, and lashed fast. In this position it was carried wherever I sailed.
The Islander cost me about one thousand dollars for material and a year and a half of hard work.
When the sails were bent, yachting friends, who knew more about the rules of the road than I did, joined me and we tried the new ship out on a cruise to Catalina Island. She proved to sail well, and all remarked on the ease with which she handled. Many pleasant days were spent sailing about the near-by islands, sometimes with friends but more often alone, and in one of the many sunny coves in the lee of Catalina Island my little ship might be found at all seasons. In the meantime, I procured books and instruments, and amid pleasant surroundings, I began to learn something of navigation.